Easy Florida Dive and Snorkeling Trips for Kids

Mar 17, 2019

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Among the many wonderful things about having kids in your life is the chance to see them experience things for the first time. First crepe in France. First sea turtle laying eggs on the beach. First ride in a bullet train. You get the idea.

I remember the first time I took my niece, Maddy, then 6 years old, on a trip to Key West. We boarded a catamaran for a sunset cruise and snorkeling session at the shallow reefs a short ride offshore.

kids snorkeling
Photo by Imgorthand / Getty Images

A Florida water baby, Maddy was already a solid swimmer. Before our trip, we’d practice in the pool back home, where I showed her how to use her mask, snorkel and fins to float on the water’s surface, breathing calmly in and out, and have a look around. So when we made it to Key West, Maddy wasn’t afraid or skeptical when we cinched our lifejackets around our chests and stepped down the boat’s ladder into the water for her first snorkel session in the ocean.

I’ll never forget her reaction, moments later, seeing tropical fish swimming all around her for the first time. Maddy shrieked with glee through her snorkel tube, kicking her feet and waving her arms wildly (forgetting all we learned about staying calm but this was exciting stuff!). I watched her moving her head every which way to follow trumpetfish and parrotfish through the clear waters. She’d pop her face out of the water, eyes wide as saucers behind her mask and point out all the creatures (“Aunt Terry, look at that one! Oh my gosh, a puffer fish!”). Her joy was contagious.

Islamorada
Snorkeling in Islamorada (Photo by Terry Ward)

We’re lucky to live in Florida, where there’s always a nearby place for a snorkel. And while the tropical and coral-rich waters of the Florida Keys are usually the first place that comes to mind when it comes to a family trip, there are other places to head underwater for mind-blowing views too.

What It Takes to Get Your Kids Certified to Dive

Your family may be content with snorkeling, which requires no certification of any kind. But Florida offers many ways for kids to get underwater and even try scuba diving in shallow conditions from as early as 8 years old.

PADI is the world’s largest scuba diving training association, and certifications from here are recognized almost anywhere in the world, and certainly all over Florida and the US.

With PADI’s Bubblemaker Program, kids as young as 8 have the chance to try out scuba gear in shallow water no deeper than 6 feet. To enroll in PADI’s popular Open Water Dive Course, kids must be at least 10 years old and have adequate swimming skills. Then it’s a pretty straightforward process to complete PADI’s online e-learning course before moving to the pool for training sessions with an instructor and finally into the ocean or freshwater springs to complete certification.

Florida diving
(Photo courtesy of VisitFlorida.com)

Other organizations that certify children to scuba dive include the SSI Scuba Rangers Program, for kids ages 8 to 12, which is the one my niece opted for when she decided to get certified.

And NAUI is another organization that offers a Junior Scuba Diver program, starting from age 10.

Note that kids under age 15 who are certified to dive are limited in the depth of water where they can dive. With PADI, certified kids between the ages of 10 and 11 must dive with certified adults and cannot go below 40 feet. And kids between the ages of 12 and 14 can’t go deeper than 60 feet and must be accompanied by certified adults when they dive. After age 15, depth and buddy restrictions are the same as for all certified PADI Open Water Divers.

Snorkeling and Diving in the Florida Keys

It makes sense to start your research by checking out the options in the Florida Keys. The 125-mile-long chain of islands is strung together with bridges all the way to the end of the road, in Key West, and you can easily plan a road trip here from Miami International Airport (MIA) and points north in Florida.

The Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys
The Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys (Photo by felixmizioznikov / Getty Images)

In the Florida Keys, all kinds of underwater wonders and experiences await families within the clear waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

For an easy snorkeling initiation, head to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, the first undersea park in the country that’s home to living coral reefs teeming with tropical fish.

The park concession runs several 2.5-hour snorkeling trips daily aboard comfortable boats (with gear available to rent on-site), as well as two daily diving trips for certified divers. With nearly 50 nearby reefs to explore, you never know where you’ll end up for the day (it all depends on weather conditions and the captain’s whim). Trips often visit the famous Christ of the Abyss, a submerged bronze statue at Dry Rocks Reef (don’t forget your waterproof camera).

Christ of the Abyss statue
Christ of the Abyss statue (Photo courtesy of VisitFlorida.com)

Points Stay: Kids 11 and under eat free (and kids 18 and under stay free, too!) at the Holiday Inn Key Largo, where you can cash in IHG Rewards Club points — from 45,000 per night — to stay close to the state park in a room with two queen beds. (Learn how to maximize IHG Rewards Club for family travel. And, if you’re light on IHG points, you can easily transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to your IHG account.)

From Key Largo to Key West, Highway 1 is lined with dive operators, especially along the stretches through Islamorada and Marathon.

Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures in Islamorada runs regular trips to shallow reefs that are perfect for snorkelers and beginner divers, where you may even spot gentle nurse sharks. If you get to snorkel or dive at Davis Reef in Islamorada (offered as a boat trip by many companies), be sure to peek under the shallow reef ledges, where sea turtles can often be seen catching some shut-eye.

Islamorada snorkeling
Getting ready to snorkel in Islamorada. (Photo by Terry Ward)

Continue south on Highway 1 to Marathon, which is actually made up of 13 small islands. Another must-stop on a snorkel and dive trip through the Florida Keys, Marathon lies roughly equidistant from Key West and Key Largo and is a good spot to spend the night midway. Head offshore from Marathon with Tilden’s Scuba Center to the section of the reef called Coffins Patch, a shallow dive site within the sanctuary preservation area that’s perfect for both beginner divers and snorkelers. Here, in just 15 to 30 feet of water, vibrant corals are busy with tropical fish that include tangs and butterfly fish and you may even spot stingrays and moray eels.

Points Stay: Another IHG property in Marathon, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Marathon (from 40k points per night), offers a full breakfast (with make-your-own pancakes) included in the room rates. If you plan to stay in Key West, try the Hyatt Centric Key West Resort & Spa from 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night for a room with two queen beds. If you need to top off your points, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to IHG Rewards Club and World of Hyatt at a 1:1 basis.

Diving and Snorkeling Near West Palm Beach

The Florida Keys capture most of Florida’s diving and snorkeling spotlight. But Florida’s east coast has conditions that can be equally impressive where the Gulf Stream swings in closest to the coast, in and around West Palm Beach and The Palm Beaches

One of the best reefs you can reach by snorkeling out from the shore awaits just offshore from the famous Breakers Palm Beach resort, where the Breakers Reef bustles with tropical fish. You might even be lucky enough to spot the occasional sea turtle.

Just north, Ocean Reef Park on Singer Island is another sweet spot to don a mask and snorkel and head right out from the beach to see what’s happening underwater. And a tad north along A1A you’ll come to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, where rocky areas just offshore attract marine life looking for a place to hide.

Singer Island, Florida
Path to the beach at Singer Island, Florida. (Photo by AppalachianViews / Getty Images)

For many snorkelers and divers, however, the highlight of diving The Palm Beaches comes not out in the ocean but during slack tide in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway instead. Here, under the Blue Heron Bridge, there is an 800-foot-long artificial reef and snorkeling trail at Phil Foster Park. You can bring a mask and snorkel to explore the well-marked underwater trail on your own or head out on guided tours with Pura Vida Divers in Riviera Beach. The skilled guides can help you spot creatures like octopuses and sea horses in their super-camouflaged hiding places. It’s important to time your snorkeling sessions here with the changing tide, as that’s when the water (just 15 feet deep along most of the trail) turns crystal clear for a short window.

Points Stay: Stay oceanfront on Singer Island, a short drive from the great snorkeling at Phil Foster Park, at the Hilton Singer Island Oceanfront/Palm Beaches Resort (usually 60k Hilton Honors points per night) or the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa (Category 7, from 60k points per night). Find out which Hilton credit card is best for families and how to maximize 100,000 Marriott points.

Snorkeling and Diving in Florida’s Freshwater Springs

For something totally different in Florida — and an in-the-water experience you won’t have to rinse off from, either — set your sights inland, on the state’s many freshwater springs, where the water is even clearer than in the ocean.

Crystal River, Florida
Snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida. (Photo by Terry Ward)

A constant 72 degrees year round, the waters of the Florida Springs, concentrated in the north central part of the state, are brisk. But those cooler temperatures also explain why you’re not likely at all to run into alligators in these popular freshwater snorkeling spots. The cold-blooded reptiles aren’t interested in waters that cold, when there are warmer places to be (such as the state’s many lakes, which are not recommended at all for snorkeling or diving).

During the cool winter months in Florida, manatees flock from the chilly Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean into the springs, which are warm by comparison. In Crystal River, north of Tampa, families love the experience of snorkeling with manatees during morning and afternoon boat tours to the springhead with Birds Underwater Dive Center. Diving is not allowed with the manatees, but you’ll be given a wetsuit to stay warm and snorkeling gear. Then, it’s into the water with the gentle sea cows. While snorkelers are not allowed to chase, touch or approach the animals, the manatees are allowed to approach you. And you’ll often find yourself being nuzzled by these amazing animals. It’s unforgettable manatee magic for kids — and adults, too.

Crystal River manatees
Manatees at Crystal River (Photo courtesy of VisitFlorida.com)

Another favorite place for a family snorkel in Florida is Ichetucknee Springs State Park, not far from the university town of Gainesville in the center of the state. Here, you can rent tubes to float down the gentle river with gin-clear waters. Put on a mask and snorkel, and you’re likely to see gar (fish) and passing freshwater turtles amid the waving grasses.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Photo courtesy of VisitFlorida.com)

Experienced certified scuba divers also enjoy suiting up to dive in the state’s many springs, where several of the most extreme cave diving conditions in the world are found in twisting networks of tunnels far beneath the oak trees growing overhead.

It’s not beginner’s territory at all. Unless you’re just planning to dive down with the kids to 20 feet or so (definitely do not enter into the mouths of any of the caves), the truth is you’ll have just as much fun snorkeling in Florida’s springs as you would scuba diving.

Points Stay: Close to many North Florida springs, including Ichetucknee, Gainesville is a fun university town (Go Gators!) with inexpensive dining, free museums and family-friendly points stays on tap at the Courtyard by Marriott Gainesville (from 25k points per night for a room with two double beds).

Bottom Line

If you’re headed to Florida, put snorkeling (or diving) on the agenda.  These are just some of our favorite options the state has to offer. The good news is that you don’t have to leave the United States to find great snorkeling for your family. Has your family snorkeled in Florida? What’s your favorite spot?

Featured image by Imgorthand / Getty Images

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